Chicago culture is so thick that local institutions are a dime a dozen. Some of my favorites are Ravinia, the Map Room, the Lyric Opera, the Lincoln Park Zoo, and Vincent P. Falk (the dude who wears bright suits and twirls on downtown bridges).
If you've been there and done that, there are three more Chicago institutions that may be less familiar.
The first is the annual Bughouse Square debate. It began in the 1910s as a place for labor movement leaders to speak their minds atop soapboxes. The speeches stopped in the 1960s, but were revived by the Newberry Library as an annual event in 1986. Every year since then, the library has organized a series of debates, administered awards, and held its annual book fair on one summer weekend.
Last year, I participated in the Main Debate at Bughouse Square. I went toe-to-toe on public sector collective bargaining with Kenzo Shibata, a staffer at the Chicago Teachers Union. I argued that public sector unions (unions of government employees) are completely different animals from the unions organized by employees of private companies. The main difference is citizens pay public employees to perform certain services on which government has monopolies (or close to them). These include streets and sanitation, public safety services, and public schools.
Public sector collective bargaining postures public servants against citizens who have no choice but to pay for their services. This makes it entirely inappropriate for public sector unions to strike if management doesn't meet their demands for increased wages and benefits.
Obviously, my position is arguable, and we had a spirited, fun debate on the topic that afternoon.
Another Chicago institution linked to lively discussions is the Lincoln Restaurant at 4008 N. Lincoln Avenue. This place is your standard Chicago neighborhood restaurant that makes good patty melts. Besides branding itself with a huge image of Illinois's most famous politician, it also hosts a number of discussion groups weekly. One is the Town Hall group, hosted by Rich Johns.
Another group that meets at the Lincoln Restaurant is the College of Complexes, our third institution.
The College of Complexes is a weekly free speech forum founded in 1951. Calling itself the "playground for people who think," the group covers all sorts of interesting topics, including "Ancient Aliens," Bronze Age anthropology, and, last Saturday, perhaps the most confusing subject of all: free markets.
I spoke before a room of about 30 middle-aged to older men (and a couple of women) about America's Future Foundation, a salon for young professionals that meets monthly in River North. Before we knew it, the discussion moved away from AFF and into a broader conversation on free markets.
College enrollees challenged me on my claims that free markets transmit ethical behavior (it's true), and that there's not some set bar under which it would be unfair to pay someone for work. (I also happen to believe there's no set bar over which it would be unfair to pay someone.) We also discussed income inequality (it's unjust only when government action causes it), and crony capitalism.
In fact, crony capitalism was probably the most discussed single topic of the evening. Many attendees were upset with the fact large corporations have the ability to essentially buy politicians and get them to bend the law. We discussed many examples, including Goldman Sachs, car manufacturers, and oil companies.
If there was any consensus that evening, it was that everyone believed the government takes actions that benefit the big guys at the expense of everyone else.
I ended my remarks with the idea that the more the government intervenes in the economy, the more opportunities there are for cronyism. And nobody wants that, least of all advocates of a true free market economy.
I'm really looking forward to discussing these ideas and many more on ChicagoNow. Feel free to ask me specific questions in the comments section any time.